Understanding Socioeconomic Contradictions

In the 19th century Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) developed a theory to explain historical development as a dynamic process. Hegel introduced a system to study history – dialectical thinking – a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. Hegel believed in a freedom of action that included struggle through rational deliberation – when we cease to strive to realize a potential then we live by habit, by rote. Negativity is an ever present feature of reality rather than the exception, opening up the possibilities of change. The tension created by contradictions influences criteria in relation to how measurements are made, which in turn, becomes part of any transformation.

There exists a dynamic balance between the individual and society, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) claims, created by deep-rooted instinctual impulses that cannot be rationally controlled. Freud observed, “A good part of the struggles of mankind centre around the task of finding an expedient accommodation – one, that is, that will bring happiness between the claims of the individual and the cultural claim of the group.” Soon after Max Horkheimer took over as director of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory in 1931, a great deal of effort was expended to use psychoanalytical theory to understand the psyche of the working class. In particular, why would those who would benefit the most from a revolution of social changes seemed to resist it. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, initially turned to Hegel’s ideas in his writing in order to explain their philosophical strength through the dynamics of socioeconomic contradictions.

Marcuse uses dialectical thinking to expose the contradictions by which an advanced industrial society is constituted. The problem of concealment occurs here because not only does society produce contraindications in the forms of domination that come with them, it also produces the social and psychological mechanisms that conceal these contradictions. An example of social contradictions is the co-existence of the growth of national wealth and poverty at the same time. Today, those who own, control, and influence the means of production (the minority) grow richer while the workers (the majority) are trapped by economic stagnation. The idea that the unbridled attempt by the rich to become richer will somehow allow their wealth to trickle down so that all will benefit has proven false as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow.

Trickle-down ideology is very effective at making itself invisible. The neoliberal belief that unbridled competition is good for everyone conceals the goal of purging society of competition by allowing large corporations to buy out their competition. There is an active process to conceal the ongoing crisis in trickle-down economics by transforming the state rescue orchestrated by the Obama administration from a crisis in private finance to a crisis of public finance and foreign debt, which they claim it is now necessary to solve through austerity policies. The introduction of more austerity continues to accelerate the roll back of post-war safety nets in order to help balance budgets. These austerity policies used to discipline the working class, are also designed to put money in the pockets of the economic elite in the near term, with promises of balancing the budget in the long-term.

Freud claims that it was the essence of the pleasure principle that decided the purpose of life. However, the external world does not conform to the dictates of the pleasure principle, and it is even hostile towards it. Hence the pleasure principle turns inward, is repressed and replaced by the reality principle. He identified two types of repression: basic repression for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization, and surplus repression for the restrictions necessitated by social domination. Marcuse’s creative modification of Freud’s theory in 1955 was to introduce the performance principle – to account for an acquisitive and antagonistic society. Over time domination has been increasingly rationalized. The worker must work to live, but the conditions under which he/she works is determined by the neoliberal system to produce commodities and maximize profits for capitalists. The worker must be manipulated in such a way that these restrictions seem to function as rational, external laws which are then internalized by the individual.1

The market was replaced with competition as the defining character of human relations, including redefining individuals as consumers. Freud described the reality principle, the ability to evaluate the external world and differentiate between it and the internal world. The reality principle strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. In neoliberalism the reality principle is replaced by the performance principle. The performance principle presupposes particular forms of rationality for domination that stratifies society according to the competitive economic performance of its members. This performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems – emphasizing individual responsibility while failing to address systemic state violence in all its manifestations – underfunding healthcare, education and social safety nets.

Domination is exercised by a particular group in order to sustain and enhance themselves in a privileged position. Marcuse observes that the system doesn’t require force – just introduce one-dimensional thinking – which leads to acceptance of oppression and surplus repression. The system must make the citizen think they are freer than they actually are. This means the economic elite must control the political discourse, not the workers. The ideology in place ensures the oppressed identify with the oppressor. The desires of the individual must conform to the desires of the economic elite. The system must provide the citizen with enough goods and activities to keep them distracted. The worker, through his or her labour does not become a free and rational subject, but rather, an object to be used by the economic system, a system that is a human creation, but over which the worker has no control.

Neoliberal capitalism as market rationality describes individuals as consumers, not citizens. This self-interest and competitiveness among fellow workers leads to alienation. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as do emotional commitment to the enterprise and the organization. The consequence of this process is enough to make us more selfish, more miserable and less concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the welfare of the state. This leads to tolerance of structural violence and supports pervasive inequality, as there appears to be no alternative to the new reality principle – the performance principle. In other words, the enforcement of the performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems, to be addressed by either focusing on market-based solutions to address system ills, or emphasizing individual responsibility, which in turn, distances us from the structural violence in the system.

In the capitalist system the worker is used as an object for reaping full benefits of production. In such a situation the worker is not able to actualize his/her potential as a free and rational being, but instead reduced to a life of toil for the sake of survival. Marcuse described two levels of negation in capitalist society. The first level is the negation of human freedom by an oppressive, repressive socioeconomic system. In this system the potential for – liberation, self-development, self-determination – the good life is prevented by various forms of domination. The second level of negation refers to the development of critical thinking, a consciousness that seeks to negate the oppressive social structure. Dialectical thinking brings this undermining of the worker’s essence to our awareness – the situation in which the worker does not have the freedom to reach his/her full potential. Marcuse’s concept of essence is not transcendental but historical – no person would want to spend his/her life engaged in alienating work.1

In order to understand changes to socioeconomic systems of oppression and domination we need to use appropriate measurements. Jerry Muller identified how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our society. The seemingly irresistible pressure to quantify performance distorts and distracts whether by encouraging ‘gaming the stats’ or ‘teaching to the test.’ That’s because what can and what does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from things we care about.2 The purpose of dialectical thinking is to reveal social contradictions, and to demand the overcoming of those contradictions through social change. The goal of such a process is not any specific measure of freedom, rather it is the elimination of alienation. In upcoming elections you need to determine which candidate supports policies that create opportunities and freedom for individuals to grow and reach their full potential.

1 Herbert Marcuse (18 Dec 2013) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marcuse/

2 An Introduction to: The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/11218.html

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